“Why is this so important?” I bark, frustrated at Sadie’s erratic behaviour.That girl has been acting weird all week, and now she demands to be taken to the Major for no reason. “Is there something wrong, Private? Some complaint that can’t go through your commanding officer?”
“Nothing’s wrong with me, I’m fine!” She hollers back, but her skin is flushed and she wears the look of a cornered animal. “Just let me go, for god’s sake. I need to see the Major.”
Even as she speaks I’m shaking my head, rejecting her crazy offer before it gets too far. “No way in hell. Not unless you tell me what’s going on.” I plant my staff firmly between my feet, standing in her path. “Private, something is clearly amiss. You’ve been acting odd ever since Ravenglass. You know I can’t have you in the field if you’re a liability.”
Staring down at her feet, she scuffs her shoes. I can tell she’s upset – her bottom lip overhanging, her eyes narrowed. Whatever the problem is, it’s clearly a big one. This is far from normal behaviour. “I’m not a liability,” she spits, her inner soldier recoiling at the insult. “Just let me see Major!”
“Why?” I demand, taking a step closer. I can see every fibre inside Sadie stretch, the muscles in her neck shivering with tension. And then something inside her snaps. Her head jerks up, chin outthrust, eyes burning and it’s impossible to look away.
“Because I love her!” she shouts in my face. I’m frozen in shock, expecting any answer other than this. Sadie reads the disturbed expression in my face and her jaw hardens.
“I know that there’s no future in this. I know about her husband, family, whatever. I know all that.” She swallows, her words rushing together. It seems to me like she’s never said this aloud before.
“I’ll never bother her with my problems. It’s a crush, that’s all it’s ever been – all it’ll ever be.” Sadie looks me in the eye, and I’m scared by how young she looks. Despite everything she’s been through, this – attachment – makes her seem like a child. “Let me see her. I know she’s injured, but I’ve heard enough rumours to be scared for her life. Let me go and put my mind at rest.”
I stare at my soldier. I never knew. Slowly, I take paper and pencil, scrawling her a note. While I write she’s as tense as a bowstring, seemingly terrified of receiving an insanity order. When I hand the note to Sadie, her eyes skim the words and then flash up to mine. The ocean of relief and expectation in her face is enough to sink me. I never knew, I never guessed.
My girl turns to leave, clutching the note like it’s solid gold, and I automatically bark at her. “Private!” Normally I would follow with a reprimand – something along the lines of, ‘I dismiss you, not the other way round’, and then a suitable punishment – but I my throat closes around the words.
“Sadie.” I’ve never addressed her with her first name before, and she turns back with startled eyes. “Stay as long as you need. I’ll make sure they don’t miss you.” Her watery smile speaks of a thousand thank-yous, and she nods gratefully before disappearing.
As she goes I wonder why I said that. I seem to be softening in my old age, like rotting fruit. Soon I’ll be a good-for-nothing old sap . But it was something about the way she spoke – the awful, awful loneliness of it. She’d locked herself into a cell with those feelings, and no-one knew better than herself that she was doomed. I hope that she receives some relief from seeing the Major, even if she can be no more than a Private to her.